My kids never got to meet my mom, but they - at turns - miss my dad a lot. The other night, as my wife was putting my daughter to bed, she asked why Grandpa Dick had to die. She wanted to know where he went. It wasn't long before she broke down into big, heaving sobs. She's 4 years old. It's a challenge trying to explain the concept of heaven to a preschooler. It's tricky trying to explain everlasting life while navigating the sadness that comes from knowing that she won't get to see him again in this one. But I tried my best. I tried to explain because it's what we believe. Because we are an Easter People.
Passion and resurrection
Obviously, "Easter People" isn't an original phrase. It sounds a little like a sci-fi movie, doesn't it? "Easter People!" (It's better with the exclamation points.) It's often understood to mean that we're a faith rooted in the Resurrection - which is half right. The problem with Resurrection is that we can't get to Sunday without going through Good Friday first. The Passion is the necessary Paschal yin to the resurrection's yang. Easter People realize all too well that suffering is real and unavoidable.
Jesus (the original Easter Person) knew that. He didn't relish the idea of a torturous and public execution, but he knew it was necessary to get to the Resurrection that would fulfill God's covenant with us.
The cross reminds us of that covenant. But it doesn't do it standing on its own. Lots of people were crucified in Jesus' time. Without his resurrection, the cross just doesn't mean all that much. It's a lower-case "t." An asymmetrical piece of wood. An ancient implement of death.
But add the stone rolled away from the tomb (admittedly, a much tougher image to get on a first Communion necklace), and you have the endgame of Christianity. You have the reason for being Catholic. Therein lies the lesson: We endure the inevitable suffering because we have a promise of redemption on the other side of it. Easter People have their hope renewed each and every Sunday.
Hope in hard times
Even with the knowledge that suffering is real and that death is an inevitable part of life, we Catholics tend to be a hopeful bunch. (Just look at our potlucks; the hopeless don't do very good potlucks.) We work every day to be Easter People. We recall Ephesians 5:15-16: "Watch carefully then how you live, not as foolish persons but as wise, making the most of the opportunity, because the days are evil." There's recognition in that passage that life has a tendency to play rough, and that it's up to us to seize the day.
But when you're the one who's hurting, it can be a tall order to be an Easter Person. How are we Catholics supposed to manage it?
As the year drew to a close, many of my friends were ready for it to be over. "Ugh," they complained in person and on social media, "good riddance to this year." I had to agree. The year stunk. Beyond our shared pain - a lousy economy, stalemate politics, Fox's announcement that this would be the final season of "House" - I was unemployed for much of the year, and I lost my dad. And yet, when the year finally finished, I couldn't help but feel joyful. There was so much about which I could be happy, even after what was objectively a very rough year.
I feel the same way about Lent. It's a long 40 days and 40 nights. And while I'm always ready for it to be over, I'm reminded that it's often the journey that makes the destination worthwhile.
Here are five simple ways to come out Easter People at the end of this (or any) period of difficulty, by practicing what my wife calls "Alleluia Living."
Cling to the people who love you. When times get tough, we Americans have a tendency to go all John Wayne on ourselves. We think that our history of rugged individualism extends to times when we really need someone to lean on. It's only after we've come through the darkness that we realize that others were there, urging us on, reminding us to mind our step.
This Easter season, find joy in those who traveled through your Lent (literal and figurative) with you.
Remember who you are. Stress can be an identity killer. When my mother died in 2003, my dad struggled to find his place in a world without her. When I lost my job (for the second time in two years), it was easy to believe that I was less talented and valuable than I'd always thought I was. Remembering that we are more than the sum of our parts - that there are precious things about us that are beautiful and unique because we are created in the image of God - is a source of joy and redemption for anyone walking a difficult road.
Don't wait for the other shoe to drop. Difficult times have a way of convincing us that they're here to stay. Even when things are good, we have a tendency to believe that it's only a matter of time before things go wrong again. The thing about counting on hardship is that you'll never be wrong. But when things have improved, when the stone has been rolled back from the tomb, celebrate. When things are good, celebrate them. When life is blissfully boring, celebrate it. That way, when trouble finds you again, at least you're not treating it as though it never left.
Bring joy to the world. Another critical piece is the ability to convert our happiness into joy for others. Easter People share their hope outwardly and lift up those around them who need it. Ironically, the process of "Alleluia Living" (getting through troubled times) and spreading joy are best when they're practiced simultaneously. Nothing gets us out of our personal doldrums quite like helping others out of theirs. This is what Father Ron Rolheiser refers to as breaking free of our obsessive preoccupation with "who I am." Even after Jesus' anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane, Luke's Gospel shows him practicing compassion and a desire to protect those he loves from harm.
Breathe in the Holy Spirit. After Jesus' resurrection, he returns to his disciples, and their mission (and ours) takes on another dimension: evangelization. In John's Gospel, Jesus greets the disciples by saying, "Peace be with you." He repeats himself and then breathes on them, bestowing on them the Holy Spirit and sending them out to carry on his work.
Many Catholics hear the word "evangelization" and shrink. It's gotten a bad rap. The simple fact is, though, that Easter People can learn a lot from that short passage. Jesus' tidings of peace are a call for us to bring about peace in our world. His victory over death is the embodiment of our faith and the reason we are called to spread his word. He grants us the power - perhaps even the obligation - to forgive. A bit later, he commands his disciples to tend, shepherd and take care of his sheep. That's evangelizing. That's being an Easter People. Living in the example of Jesus, everyday for everyone.